Hans Urs von Balthasar (d. 1988), Swiss Catholic theologian and author, towers over Christian thought at the end of the 20th century and continues to inform and inspire thinkers into the 21st. I confess – I share the struggles of those who want to understand him well but who find his writing always daunting and often inaccessible. I’ve depended on others to sift through his opus and make sense of it for me. My most recent help has come from Karen Kilby’s (Durham University) Balthasar: A (Very) Criticial Introduction, a short introduction that has received both (well-deserved, I think) praise and criticism from Balthasar fans.
There is no ignoring Balthasar’s colossal output, which is why I continue to try to access him. I’ve naturally gravitated toward works that focus on his Trinitarianism (his speculative reach to describe the event(s) that constitute God’s inner life), his Christology (particularly his kenoticism), and his understanding of the Cross (as divine abandonment) – all three of which are a single subject for Balthasar.
As I got into Kilby’s responses in Ch 5 (“The Trinity”), I found myself doing far too much highlighting. Objections I had loosely and tentatively formed over several years in my own mind are explicitly described by Kilby. So I’d like to present three portions of this chapter (minus her footnotes) – the first (in this post) a summary of Balthasar’s views (‘Trinity and Cross’), then a second and third which form Kilby’s (and my own) reservations.
Trinity and Cross
We saw in the previous chapter that Balthasar highlights as “the quintessence of Scripture” five biblical motifs surrounding the Cross (self-surrender, exchange, liberation, our being drawn into the divine life, God’s love as the primary source of the whole). And we saw that in his survey of the tradition he presented each of his predecessors as having taken up some but not all of the motifs, or else having failed to maintain the appropriate balance between them. Balthasar in fact proposes that two things are needed in order to do justice to the full range of motifs. One, we have already seen, is a dramatic approach, which can keep in play and hold in tension a variety of elements, rather than attempting to reduce everything to any single concept. The second, which is our concern here, is what he calls a “Trinitarian substructure.”
What, then, is this Trinitarian substructure? It has to do with the nature of the relations between the Persons of the Trinity. These relations Balthasar characterizes not only in the familiar terms of love and gift, but also in terms of distance (in fact, infinite distance), otherness, risk, and kenosis.
Now, the language of the Father giving everything, giving indeed himself, to the Son, is very common in traditional Trinitarian reflection. What is far less familiar is the way Balthasar consistently glosses this giving as a giving up, giving away, a self-stripping: “the Father strips himself, without remainder, of his Godhead and hands it over to the Son”; the Father “can give his divinity away”; the Father “lets go of his divinity”; this is an “original self-surrender” in which the Father “must go to the very extreme of self-lessness.”
Where classic treatments of the Trinity tend, if anything, to emphasize the closeness, the inseparability, of the Persons, Balthasar writes repeatedly of the distance (in his more cautious moment, of “something like distance”) between them, of otherness and separation. The Son is “the infinitely Other” of the Father; there is “an absolute, infinite ‘distance’” between them, “a unique and incomprehensible ‘separation’ of God from himself.” Interestingly, where in classic treatments, the closeness, the inseparability, of the Persons tends to be conceived as linked to the fullness of the Father’s self-gift – because the Father gives everything he is to the Son, there can be no distance between them – in Balthasar’s thought this same self-gift of the Father’s (though here conceived as self-stripping) leads, it would seem, in precisely the opposite direction: Balthasar’s assertion of the infinite difference or separation of the Persons regularly follows references to the Father giving himself away completely to the Son.
Kenosis – self-emptying – begins, then, not in the Cross or the Incarnation, but in the Father’s generation of the Son. The Father does not actually do away with himself in this kenosis: “the Father, in uttering and surrendering himself without reserve, does not lose himself. He does not extinguish himself by self-giving.” Nevertheless, Balthasar is keen to preserve something like a sense of risk, something vulnerable and dangerous, in this giving away.
What such an understanding of the inner relations of the eternal divine Persons does is to allow Balthasar to develop a Trinitarian understanding of the meaning of the Cross, which can then be seen not as a breach in or a change to the eternal inner-Trinitarian relations, but as an expression of them. He is able, that is, to present the Cross as the enactment of a drama between the Father and the Son, while at the same time insisting, with the tradition, that God is not somehow altered through an engagement with history.
The Cross should not be understood, Balthasar insists, simply as God incarnate, in his human nature, undergoing suffering and death on behalf of or in the place of sinners. Such a statement may not be false, but it does not go far enough, does not get to the most profound level of what is at stake. It is not just God incarnate who undergoes the Cross, but the Son, and what is undergone is not just suffering and death, but more profoundly forsakenness, abandonment, rejection, by the Father. On the Cross we see God rejected by and alienated from God. On the Cross the relationship between God’s wrath and sin is played out between the Father and the Son, and therefore taken over into God, into the relationship between the Father and the Son. But because of what we have seen above, of the infinite distance, the “incomprehensible separation” which all along, so to speak, characterizes the Father/Son relations, this is not the introduction of something new into the Trinity because infinite distance and something like alienation were always already there. The Trinity, one could say a little crudely, is “big enough” to encompass and so overcome even the terrible distance between the righteous and angry God and the lost sinner.
Balthasar’s much debated proposal concerning Holy Saturday is essentially the working out of this same idea. What happens in the time between Christ’s death and resurrection, between Good Friday and Easter Sunday? There is a biblical reference (1 Peter 3:19; 4:6) to Christ’s preaching to the dead, and traditionally this has been developed into a notion of a victorious descent, “the beginning of the manifestation of his triumph over death and the first application of the fruits of redemption.” [*] Balhasar proposes, by contrast, that Christ is utterly passive on Holy Saturday, that he can no longer act, that he is genuinely dead in solidarity with the dead, and indeed that , having become identified with sin itself, he experiences the full horror of it, which is to say hell, utter rejection, and abandonment by the Father.
Balthasar’s soteriology is powerful and vivid. It seems to show how we can take seriously the gravity of sin, and the recurrent biblical theme of divine wrath against sin, while presenting a drama in which the overwhelming theme is still that of God’s love. It takes up the traditional themes (typically emphasized in Protestant theology) of Christ’s substitution for us, even of Christ bearing punishment for us, but because of the thoroughly Trinitarian way in which Balthasar sets out the drama, the usual difficulty of these themes – that a requirement for a perfectly just man to be killed for the iniquities of the unjust is repellent, arbitrary, unfair – is, if not entirely eliminated, at least reduced. The dominant sense one is left with is not of God insisting on punishing one party instead of another, but of God taking into his own life the necessary conflict between us as the provision of an explanation, but as the exploration of a drama, he is able to put the emphasis on bringing out, rather than dissolving, conflicting themes and forces.
Our main concern at this stage, however, is not in his soteriology for its own sake, but in Balthasar’s treatment of the Trinity, and particularly the way he interweaves reflections on the Trinity with soteriology. To appreciate the distinctiveness of this integration, it is useful to compare it to what has become in recent years the more typical pattern of Trinitarian reflection.
As I mentioned in the opening paragraph of the chapter, many contemporary theologians feel the need to restore the doctrine of the Trinity to a place of centrality and importance, to restore to it a sense of relevance, to rescue it from the realm of technical puzzles, intellectual gymnastics, celestial mathematics. One very common strategy is to reject the traditional Western “psychological analogy” for the Trinity and introduce instead a social analogy: the Trinity is to be modeled, not on the multiple faculties or multiple activities of a single mind, but on a small community bound together by love. The relevance of the Trinity is then found in the way it becomes itself a model for community, and in the quality of the relationships within it, relationships so profound that they can make the Three genuinely One. If the doctrine of the Trinity portrays the divine in its innermost reality as Persons-in-relation, as relationships so profound that they constitute the Persons, or as relationships so profound that they lead to a “perichoretic” unity of Persons, then surely it has something to say about how we think about family, about the Church, about society at all levels, and about ourselves. In this way the Trinity is found to be, after all, an edifying doctrine with a range of very practical applications.
Social theories are, of course, varied, but many share in a basic pattern, a pattern of abstraction followed by application. One moves away from the complexities of the biblical texts, away from discussion of creation, Incarnation, Cross, resurrection, ascension, Pentecost, to rest one’s focus on a set of quite abstract concepts – concepts of Persons, relations, and perichoresis – and then, taking these to be what ware at the heart of the doctrine of the Trinity, one looks to find application for the concepts, to give these abstractions relevance. So one can find a Colin Gunton, for instance, writing enthusiastically about the applications of the notion of perichoresis in metaphysics or in conceiving of the interpenetration of different academic disciplines, or a Jurgen Moltmann drawing on the eternal relations of the Trinity as a way to provide a model for Church polity and indeed a way to move beyond the impasse between Western individualism and Eastern communitarianism.
On some points Balthasar is at one with these social theorists. He too envisages the Persons of the Trinity functioning as something not too far from persons in our ordinary sense of the term, and so he too imagines the Trinity as something closer to a small society or family than to differing aspects of a single psyche. But here the ways part, for Balthasar does not engage in the abstraction so characteristic of social theories of the Trinity. The Trinity is never, in Balthasar’s theology, a doctrine in search of a meaning, and he does not need to propose for it some extra relevance of its own: it is rather, as he presents it, intimately concerned with, and necessary for the understanding of, the life of Jesus and particularly the Cross. So, for example, though Balthasar is like the social theorists in showing a concern with the eternal inner relations of the Trinity, he leads us not into a reflection about a general concept of relations that can then perhaps find useful application elsewhere, but into a reflection very specifically about the relation of the Father to the Son (and to some extent of the Holy Spirit to both). We have in Balthasar, then, as vivid and gripping a presentation of the inner life of the Trinity as any social theorist could wish for, but one which maintains at every stage vital links with the drama of salvation.
* Not to be confused with Balthasar, this quote if from Alyssa Pitstick (First Things, December 2006)